Diane Ravitch v. Science

Over on twitter, my friend Mark Safranski and I have been having a conversation regarding school reform. Diane Ravitch, and the role of science in public policy.

Diane Ravitch is a historian. Being a historian, she has never published any scientific work. But she knows just enough science to be dangerous. Take for instance this line, which she seems to actually think is relevant:

Guggenheim [the directory of Waiting for “Superman”]seems to believe that teachers alone can overcome the effects of student poverty, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between income and test scores.

Think of how stupid this line is.

Imagine someone criticizing heavy launch vehicles, castigating those who believe that “chemicals alone” can overcome the effects of gravity, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between gravity and crashing to earth.

Imagine someone criticizing vaccination, castigating those who believe that “medicines alone” can overcome the effects of malnutrition, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between malnutrition and mortality.

Imagine someone criticizing civil engineering, castigating those who believe that “better on ramps alone” can overcome the effects of traffic, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between driving and danger.

Identifying the single largest influence in a system may be a useful trick for historians. This allows them to reduce a complicated reality to a simple narrative, which they can then tell to others. This is a historian’s craft, and it’s fine, as long as one realizes that all history is the process of simplified deception.

Science is the process of “predicting, controlling, and improving” variation in a system. In science, unlike history, one does not simply take the largest contributing factor and write a narrative around it. Instead, one seeks to understand what the most efficacious ways of changing variation in a system is.

Ravitch‘s use of scare quotes around “alone” may be meant to mock scientists, but it ends up mocking herself.

Whether or not teaches “alone,” or heavy-lift chemicals “alone,” or vaccinations “alone” is irrelevant. Ravitch, in the same article, continues her irrelevant, worthless, straw-man attack

The movie asserts a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion: the idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement

Again, think of how stupid this line is.

Imagine someone saying the central thesis in today’s aeronautics community is the idea that heavy lift chemicals are the most important factor in determing an objects moments.

Imagine someone saying the central thesis of the medical community is that vaccinations are the most important facotr in determining someone’s health.

Imagine someone saying the central thesis of the civil engineering is that on-ramps are the most important factor in determining the safety of a commute.

We are fortunate there is a biparistan consensus to ignore hacks like Diane Ravitch, and instead use scientific methods to improve our failing public schools. I am grateful to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama for pushing science-based school reform, instead of falling under the pseudoscientific haze that envelops Diane Ravitch and her provincial allies.

Review of “The Great American University,” by Jonathan R. Cole

The Great American University is a book about the origins of the American research university system. The book is written for those with interest in the direction and future of research universities, and those who are curious how they differ from ‘regular’ colleges and universities.

The American research university emerged in the late 19th century, and was inspired by the experience of American students who studied in Europe as well as American philanthropists and political leaders with affection for British civilization. The returning students had seen the success of the German research universities, and the manner in which a Professor working with graduate students could lead to streams of new research. American leaders, aspiring to be more like the British leaders of the anglosphere, admired the distributed system of autonomous colleges and semi-autonomous departments that characterized Oxford and Cambridge. The combination of German tactics and British strategy proved successful, and the rise of the American research university began.

Much is made of the collapse of German universities as a result of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. While Cole acknowledges the brain drain duringg the 1930s and 1940s, Cole argues that the drain began the war and has continued since. While the collapse of the German research university was accelerated by the Nazis, in Cole’s opinion it was largely a result of the rise of America combined with the rise of socialist/anticompetitive politics in German post-1945 that sickened, then killed, the German system.

Following the Second World War science boom, the federal government accelerated the rise of the American research universities. From the Second World War to the Vietnam War, physics was a favorite area for funding. From this we received many new physical inventions, such as a transistor. After the Vietnam War, medicine is a favorite area for funding. Now we have great medical breakthroughs.

Professors at both research universities and “regular” universities have the familiar mix of teaching responsibilities, research universities, and community service. At a regular university the primary focus is to educate a new generation of workers and local business leaders. At a research university, on the other hand, the purpose of these three activities is the training and mentorship of a new generation of active researchers. (In the modern economy, however, a good argument can be made that some forms of research make for very good jobs and industries.)

Some of the book is spent on enemies of the research university system. Cole accurately describes creationists, some social conservatives, speech and “hate” codes, and political apparatchiks as enemies of the research university. Some readers might find the glowing references to Barack Obama to be annoying, but anyone who has read The Post-American World (by Fareed Zakaria) or Great Powers (by The Great American University, and recommend it to anyone curious about American higher education.

Impressions of “The Club Dumas,” by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Recently I read The Club Dumas, the book that The Ninth Gate is based on. The Ninth Great is a wonderful, atmospheric movie starring Johnny Depp. I enjoyed the movie and I previously read The Rule of Four, another bibliophile thriller, so I wanted to check out the inspiration of the film.

The Club Dumas is a hard book to review. I don’t read as much fiction as I used to, and Dumas (which a blurb calls a cross between Umberto Eco and Anne Rice) isn’t a typical beach book. So instead I will just give some impressions:

One character, very minor at the beginning and quite important at the end, is Satan. Satan is proud, and pride is the worst of all sins, because of all sins, only pride leaves the sinner all alone:

I don’t know why you keep talking to me as if I were one of many. I’ve been alone for a long time.

The Club Dumas is an excellent book, almost meta-fiction, and a great read. I bought it for a penny used from Amazon. Highly recommended.